by Jeff Cook
It's Saturday morning; the traffic is heavy; the sun is beating down; and dust is stinging my arms as I weave in between a mixture of cars, trucks, carts, and people. I'm driving back to a village near Phnom Penh for the first time in over a month, and I'm full of nervous energy and probably get there a little faster than normal because of it.
One of the last times I was at this village, I was confronted with the fact that an older disabled couple that many people are trying to assist had been lying about the cause of their injuries. They stated originally that they were injured trying to protect their niece from the widespread human trafficking and sexual exploitation that happens in the village, but in fact they were injured trying to sell her. The church stepped in and started providing assistance (due to the couple's injuries, they had no way of providing for themselves or their niece), and unfazed by the awful reality of the couple's involvement in selling their own niece, decided that the assistance would continue unabated. But at some point, when the shame would not break the relationship apart and put the niece at greater risk, someone would share with the couple that the truth of their involvement had been revealed.
Today, heading back to the village, I was nervous because I just learned that the young girl had dropped out of school. One of the main goals in providing for the family's needs (other than to keep them healthy as they recuperate) is to ensure that the young girl does not have to work so she can go to school. With the village almost in sight, I wasn't at all sure what I would or could say to encourage her to return. Like a switch my feelings were alternating between hope and despair.
When I arrived, I was greeted by the warm welcome of the local pastor, and we soon turned to walk toward the family's home. I say home, but in fact, it is more of a 9×9 foot room sectioned off from a larger one-story hut where numerous families live. As I melted into the plastic chair and the mosquitoes began salivating over what would become a very large breakfast, I exchanged pleasantries with the aunt and awaited for the uncle and the young girl to arrive. The uncle walked in under his own power (a great improvement from several months ago) but I did not see the young girl. After asking about the girl, he motioned to the wooden bed that took up over half of the room, and balled up in the corner under a cover laid the girl, fast asleep. He explained that she works every night until 7 or 8 in the morning selling fish by the river, so she would not be able to participate in our discussion this morning. And I thought to myself, no wonder she can't make it to school…
The uncle stated that she makes $2.50 a night, 50 cents of which she keeps, and the rest is used for breakfast noodles and coffee throughout the month (items not included in the monthly food provisions from the church). He reassured me that he wants her to go to school, and I reassured him that support is available for the family over and above what the church is providing to see that she does go to school. He said that he would talk to her when she woke up because now she is old enough to make her own decisions and that he would relay her wishes to the pastor tomorrow.
This is a critical 48-hour period that could see this 15-year-old girl return to school or continue down a dangerous road where exploitation is a very real and present threat. Please pray that she sees these dangers and chooses to return to school, and please pray that if she wants to return, the support for the family can be worked out quickly and agreeably.